Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

Lifestyle

October 18, 2010

To Botswana and back

Newfane man works to solve HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa

NEWFANE — It started in 2001, with a Time magazine. Ed Pettitt, then a Newfane High School student, was assigned to do a project based on a news article. He chose a Time cover story about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa.

“This is a story about AIDS in Africa,” the cover reads. “Look at the pictures. Read the words. And then try not to care.”

Pettitt couldn’t. Already having an interest in health-related matters, the story spurred him to do more research on the topic.

“It really engaged my interest,” he says. “I saw how (AIDS) was pretty much wiping out an entire generation of people.”

Pettitt, 27, a Cornell University graduate who majored in biology, received a fellowship to go to Malawi during his junior year of college. During that time, he worked for an HIV campaign in secondary schools.

“At the time, Malawi was bad,” he says. “People were just dying in their huts. You would walk through villages and see people vomiting blood, looking like skeletons, just waiting to die.”

For many, that experience would be enough for a lifetime. For Pettitt, it was only the beginning. There was work to be done. After graduating, he looked to return to Africa. The Peace Corps was the most immediate way of doing so.

Pettitt had a request upon joining the Peace Corps in 2006 (a request is only that, as Peace Corps volunteers aren’t guaranteed placement in areas of their preference) — he wanted to go to somewhere remote in Africa.

“Put me as far out as you can,” he says.

He got his wish. The Peace Corps sent Pettitt to New Xade, Botswana, a village in the middle of the Kalahari Desert, about 70 miles away from the nearest electricity and telephone services.

Pettitt knew very little about Botswana then. He knew it was peaceful, well-developed and somewhat small. But it also had the highest HIV prevalence rate in the world at the time. The Peace Corps left the country at one point, but returned, solely to work on HIV/AIDS issues.

Pettitt worked with indigenous minorities in Botswana during his time with the Peace Corps. He helped HIV-positive mothers stay on their antiretroviral drugs, most commonly known as ARVs. ARVs are currently the most successful treatment for HIV and AIDS.

Pettitt made sure these mothers used infant formula to prevent the transfer of HIV through breastfeeding. He also worked on literacy projects and education within the village.

During this time, he became fluent in the country’s official language, Setswana. But he also picked up the village’s own language, a language with click consonants. To properly pronounce the village name of New Xade, a clicking sound must come with the letter “X,” while the words continue to flow onward. It’s probably even harder than it sounds.

After completing his time in the Peace Corps, Pettitt returned home to Newfane. But not for long.

“When I finished in two years, I felt like I wasn’t done,” he says. “I wanted to do something on a larger scale. It was really frustrating to see children dying needlessly.”

So, it was back to Botswana. Pettitt was hired at the Botswana-Baylor Children’s Clinical Centre of Excellence. There, he set up a program for HIV-positive teens. He created events and educated the teens on how to disclose their HIV-positive status to others.

For all the great things about Botswana — the tight-knit feeling of community, the importance of personal relationships, the lack of superficiality — some members of African society often carry a fatalistic view through life, Pettitt says. Part of the challenge is helping them understand that giving up isn’t an option.

With that comes the most important education of all — getting the teens to adhere to their medicine regimen. African adolescents have the highest rate of not properly adhering to their medications, Pettitt says. When you don’t keep up with your regimen, the medications stop working.

“(You must) really get them to think they have a future,” Pettitt says of the teens. “ As long as they remain adherent, they can pretty much have a normal lifespan. They can do anything they want.”

Things in Botswana are looking up, Pettitt notes. The country’s government is taking a leadership role in the fight against HIV and AIDS. The government provides the proper medication, and costs are subsidized by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Merck, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. HIV is on the decline. Progress is being made.

“But there’s still a whole generation of children who will grow up on medication,” Pettitt says.

It’s a good thing, then, that there are people like Pettitt who have no intention of giving up the fight. Now that he’s back in the U.S., he plans on getting his master’s degree, and working for the Baylor International Pediatric AIDS Initiative again in the near future, whether at the company’s office in Houston or at a clinic abroad.

Pettitt’s mother, Lisa, is proud of her son’s work, and she enjoyed the family’s two-week visit to Africa. But just like a mom, “I’d rather have him at home,” she says.

Though as much as Ed’s mother would like him to stick around Newfane, it doesn’t seem like it’s in the cards.

“I would like to work on public health issues here in the U.S., as well, but I really have a knack for travel,” he says.

With Pettitt’s ability to pick up languages, and his comfort with living in isolated areas, “It’s almost like it was meant to be,” he says.

And though the HIV/AIDS crisis doesn’t get as much recognition in the U.S. anymore — not like it did in the 1990s — Pettitt sees the situation in Africa as “the great health crisis of our age.”

“When I have grandkids and they ask what I did to stop this, I wanted to have something to say to that,” he says. “I want to contribute to a resolution somehow.”

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